Poets and Advent
“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
Poets are Adventine creatures—they know intimately about waiting. Randall Jarrell, American poet, writing of Wallace Stevens, American poet, says that as writers we can’t expect lightning to strike too often, can’t expect “the shattering and inexplicable rightness the poet calls inspiration.” In the long meantime, he says, between the real inspirations, Stevens “waits writing.”
What is the quality of our waiting? In this lean time, December, with the sun low on the horizon, it helps to see the waiting as having intrinsic worth, as blessing, and yet we are not always very good at it: the emptiness of waiting is not often enough seen as something to savor—there’s no sweetness, it seems, in the tautness of that hunger. Instead: an impatience, a pressure.
In a review of a book by Wendell Berry, I once read: “A friend of mine has a very bright and unschooled wife who says that of all the creatures on earth, we are the only ones who don’t know how to be here.” I would include in this “not knowing” our Advent impatience. (When I was an English schoolboy, on bus trips to sporting events, we used to sing “Why Are We Waiting?” over and over to the tune for “O Come All Ye Faithful.”)
The poetic imagination itself is incarnational—the poet, Coleridge writes, “echoes the primary imagination,” the Creative Love that overflowed into human form. Abstraction cannot move the reader as powerfully as the sensory, which is why poets attend so much to what is immediate and all around us, giving to “airy nothing,” as Shakespeare calls it, “a local habitation and a name.” Sylvia Plath, an American poet living in rural England, writes in her journal that “My poems . . . are not about the terrors of mass extinction but about the bleakness of the moon over a yew tree in a neighbouring graveyard.”
In Advent, let us give thanks for the astonishing Creation by paying our deepest attention to it, always mindful of the Great Light within, whose renewal is our daily sacred business. In this season of shorter days, it is an old intuition, an ancient sympathy, to light fires, among them fires of fresh speech. The compensating imagination, the transformative impulse, is our birthright.
And yet, as we accustom ourselves to the dark, we feel its fertility. We all have our shadow lives, an endless terrain unlit by human naming, where things erupt and begin to grow—soil and womb of our own essential selves. Meister Eckhart, a Dominican theologian in fourteenth century Germany, writes—and this, in a way, echoes Roethke (a German-American poet, raised in Michigan)—
“One really finds light best in darkness. Thus when a man suffers and knows discomfort, he is nearest to the light. Let God do his best or his worst, he must give himself to us whether we are in trouble or discomfort or not.”
Let’s also remember the stillness of Advent in the words of this anonymous fifteenth century poem: “He cam all so still / Where his moder was / As dew in Aprille / That falleth on the grass.” In this stillness of the dew of Jesus, we can send out our praise in the midst of this shadowed world, sustained as we are by the reality of God-with-us, that most astonishing endorsement of the human.
Some last words from Meister Eckhart:
“The supreme purpose of God is birth . . . What good is it if Mary gave birth to the Son of God fourteen hundred years ago and I don’t give birth to God’s son in my person and in my culture and in my times?”
The essential journey is in darkness. We seek what Thomas Keating calls “the way of love in the darkness.” We are, all of us, Adventine creatures.
Michael Dennis Browne’s poems have been published in many magazines and anthologies, and his awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bush Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and the McKnight Foundation. His teaching career includes the University of Iowa, Columbia, Bennington, and the University of Minnesota, where he taught for thirty-nine years and is now a professor emeritus.
sunset photo: Paul Morris